Life Plus

Q&A: Emma Seppälä on the power of compassion


Tags: Wellbeing

Author :Emma Wheaton Posted:24 June 2014

Australia has never been as diverse as it is today, and likewise it has arguably never been more divided. Could we change all that by showing more compassion?

Our connected world means we are increasingly aware of the tragedies and sufferings of others – whether it is the effects of war thousands of kilometres away or the struggles of someone closer to home. That empathy we feel toward others and the desire to help them is known as compassion.

Powerful perspective

The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index has found that people’s wellbeing – and, in particular, their sense of community connection – may well rise in the aftermath of a major national disaster. Such events tend to make people realise they are part of something bigger than themselves. For instance, participants in the annual survey recorded enhanced wellbeing following bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland – a finding that Emma Seppälä believes demonstrates the importance of connection with others. “Studies show that socially connected individuals have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and co-operative,” she says.

According to Emma Seppälä, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, compassion can make a difference on a personal, local and even global scale. Here, she explains why.

How did compassion evolve – are we wired for kindness?

Absolutely. Our first instinct is to help someone in need. Living a life of purpose and care is so deeply beneficial that researchers believe this trait has emerged as a part of human evolution. At our core, we have what Professor Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a ‘compassionate instinct’: compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. Darwin’s message was not ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather ‘survival of the kindest’, because we need each other’s support and care to survive as a species.

For the individual, what are the benefits of being compassionate?

Compassion offers tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. Research suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. Lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure, and strong social connection leads to an increased chance of longevity.

Is there any research that indicates levels of compassion are rising or falling – or even linked to the economy?

Not that I know of globally. But research does suggest that higher economic classes have less empathy and that disadvantaged people contribute more to charitable causes per capita than advantaged people.

So, our level of compassion rises the closer we are to suffering?

I don’t know of any science to back this up, but it would sound likely and may explain the reason people from poorer backgrounds are more generous towards others.

Compassion does broaden our perspective beyond ourselves. When you do something for someone else, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus. If you recall a time when you were feeling blue and suddenly a close friend or relative called you for urgent help with a problem, you may remember that as your attention shifted to helping them, your mood lifted. Rather than feeling blue, you may have felt energised to help; before you knew it, you may have even felt better and gained some perspective on your own situation as well.

“Studies show that socially connected individuals have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and co-operative.”

Is there any way to ‘teach’ compassion?

A number of studies have shown that a variety of compassion and ‘loving-kindness’ meditation practices, mostly derived out of traditional Buddhist practices, may help cultivate compassion. In 2008, I was involved in a study that addressed how meditation could nurture social connectedness. We found that a seven-minute intervention was enough to increase feelings of closeness and connection  – on explicit measures, as well as implicit measures that participants could not voluntarily control. This suggests that their sense of connection had changed on a deep-seated level. Similarly, a study investigating how compassion training might help at-risk adolescents in foster care showed increased hopefulness in the children. Overall, research on compassion interventions shows improvements in psychological wellbeing, compassion and social connection.

What are the most concerning findings from your research? What are the most surprising?

The most concerning is probably the fact that wealthier people experience less empathy since they have the greatest means to make a difference.

What has surprised me most is that I always felt that service, kindness and compassion could make a big difference, but I did not realise the extent to which it could change both our lives and our society. Research undertaken by Professor Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of ‘elevation’. Data suggests that elevation then inspires us to help others – and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving.

So, compassion is contagious; how can this benefit society?

Research demonstrates that acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. You may have seen news reports about chain reactions that occur when someone pays for the coffee for the customer behind them or for the toll for the driver behind them at a tollbooth. People keep the generous behaviour going for hours. Our acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy. You may feel like just one small human being in a giant worldwide population… but research shows that you can have a huge impact.